Thursday, November 1, 2007

Week 11, Edgar Poe and Ralph W. Emerson

Notes on Emerson and Poe

Page-by-Page Notes on Emerson’s The American Scholar

722-23. Emerson advocates a romantic, almost Blakean view of intellectual life’s processes and purpose. One generation’s living utterance becomes the next several generations’ test material. An individual or a people produce something really fine, and subsequent generations stop thinking in order to bow down and worship the prior productions of genius. When you “bow down” too long, you find yourself unable to stand up again. Education ought to fight this tendency, but instead perpetuates it. That’s true whether we are dealing with ivory-tower dwellers or culture-watchdogs (depending on which metaphor you prefer), or with a mere determination to endure what’s necessary to get a degree and move on to a better job, higher pay and status, etc. Emerson apparently identifies the discovery of truth with intuition, not with abstruse and abstract study. He was a learned man by anybody’s standards, but he didn’t see erudition as the point of study. I admire Emerson’s deep connection to the tradition of wisdom-writing—he does not go to literature seeking vulgarly practical “ideas” or detached beauties. Instead, he approaches both in a truly philosophical spirit. Much in the same spirit (if in a less exalted vein) is the modern critic Kenneth Burke’s statement that literature is “equipment for living.”

A basic difficulty with Emersonian motivational rhetoric is that the tendencies he would like to see reversed stem from incredibly powerful social and economic imperatives. You can’t just “talk” them out of existence, no matter how eloquently you talk. (Thomas Carlyle—yes, George Costanza of Seinfeld’s famous “Tommy C”—Emerson’s fellow wisdom-writer in the British Isles, faced the same problem.)

For example, who among us disagrees with many of the sublime pronouncements of, say, Blake or Shelley? But at the same time, what is more easily and continually appropriated than “British Romanticism”? It’s in every poetry anthology, and in teaching it as test material we almost inevitably strip it of much of its power. Shelley wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn if “Ode to the West Wind” helps you get an A on an exam; he was trying to radicalize people’s sensibilities and shake up the world, not get himself enshrined in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. By and large, English literature is taught as a technical skill. One becomes “proficient in the modalities of literary production” or some such bureaucratic nonsense. (It really is pathetic, isn’t it, how a bygone era’s grand humanistic ideals get translated into Orwellian Newspeak by school catalog editors?) That technical skill then becomes useful to, say, corporate entities seeking wordsmiths who can convince others that drilling for oil has something to do with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that large SUV’s are actually good for the environment, that “Harry and Louise” really give a solitary smoking-induced cancer cell about finding “a better way” to bring us all health care, and so forth. Well, I suppose there’s no point in being so cynical—perhaps we need not demand that Emerson and his fellow poets and critics produce an immediate revolution in sensibilities. Ultimately, my response to those who dismiss Emerson’s kind of critique is that it’s better to know what you’re up against than not to know what you’re up against. And Emerson is surely clear on the nature and force of the problem, isn’t he?

Page-by-Page Notes on Emerson’s “The Poet”


727-30. Emerson makes a characteristically romantic claim: the poet, just as Wordsworth suggested, is most in command of the power of expression. Emerson nicely describes human aspirations when he says that the better half of us is expression. We are, that is, works in progress, the objects of our own reflection, and so forth. In fact, Emerson (like Carlyle) insists that it is deeply human to regard symbols and believe in “mystery” without surrendering passively to either. And it’s the poet who is most conscious of this need for symbolism and mystery. (Not “mysticism,” which rigidifies symbols and becomes passive towards them—mysticism is a kind of false, unearned universalism, a pretension to universal significance.) Words are, says Emerson, a kind of action, and vice versa—everything calls for interpretation, spiritual interpretation. That is not only romantic, it is scriptural in tenor. I think the bottom line in Emerson’s claims about the poet as guide is that we mustn’t let false, popular messiahs take away our faith in the power of the genuine article, the true poet-prophet.

731-34. Emerson claims that language is “fossil poetry.” Every word was once vitally metaphoric, close to raw experience, intuition. In its modern, more restricted form, it retains this potential for spiritual awakening—the poet is almost a Buddha figure, “he who is awakened.” (The claim that poetry gave humanity its first laws and institutions is, of course, much older than romanticism—you can even find a version of it in Horace’s “Ars Poetica.”) On 731, Emerson says that genius “repairs the decay of things.” That’s very similar to Shelley’s remark that poetry “redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man.” Another piece of romanticism is the idea that imagination must follow its own course, generate its own forms—not accept those prescribed by artistic conventions or social expectations. Art is not to become passive, a cipher for politics or economic needs or class interests. It should remind us that we all have the power of self-expression and development.

737-39. Emerson describes America as a poem that remains almost entirely to be expressed, and it would seem that Whitman is an exemplary Emersonian poet. Whitman was a free spirit, but was always concerned to register and express all kinds of American experience, as evidenced by the long “catalogs” in his poetry and by his refusal to prejudge a diverse collection of people, practices, and tendencies. Whitman embraces the transgressive and the conventional, the intellectual and the sensual, the urban and wild, etc. Borrowing the language of Coleridge, we might say that Whitman “reconciles opposite and discordant qualities” without canceling them or reducing them all to some false, facile unity.

Page-by-Page Notes on Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”


742-43. Poe’s outrageousness stems from his self-conscious insistence that romantic creativity is a matter of calculated effect, not a cause of great poetry. The poet, in Poe’s view, is rather like the Raven, except that he or she is a highly self-aware iterator of stock devices and phrases. It’s as if the Raven alighted on somebody’s door, fully intending to keep saying “Nevermore” just to get under the poor devil’s skin. Personal expression evidently has nothing to do with the composition of poetry, on this view. Design is what matters. Poe’s scandalous “peep show” of poetic creation makes fun of Transcendentalist pretensions, the Emersonian prophetic strain, and any kind of romanticism whatsoever. Does Poe take himself seriously? I doubt it—he always has seemed to me a bit of a humbug, a showman trying to please his public. But that’s no condemnation—he pulls it off well, doesn’t he? I mean, who doesn’t like “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Pit and the Pendulum,” not to mention “The Premature Burial” and “The Case of Mr. Valdemar”? Romantic irony is generally taken to be a way of destabilizing preconceived notions, but Poe turns lighthearted irony on romanticism itself.

746. The Raven’s utterance establishes a tone of sadness by its inhuman repetition of the word “Nevermore.” Now sacrifice a beautiful woman, and you’ve got yourself a shocker of a poem. Poe’s combination of anxiety about death and desire for beauty reminds me of Walter Pater’s formulation in Marius the Epicurean, a decadent masterpiece from the 1880’s. When these two powerful motivators or impulses combine, we are treated to particularly intense moments, as when Marius sees a pair of snakes mating. Furthermore, in an uncanny way the speaker is doomed to export his own melancholy into his environment, which melancholy then returns to him, redoubling his intense gloom. Of course, “The Raven’s” speaker indulges in his despair as if it were chocolate ice cream, and progressively gives himself over to morbid speculation and dread of the supernatural. Poe’s macabre stories, like some of his better Gothic poetry, may be droll at times, but they get under our skin, don’t they? Some of his stories remind me of modern masterpieces like Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, which I admit makes me unable to sleep normally for days after I’ve seen it. Evidently, Poe was able to tap into and exploit unconscious anxieties with his tales—he was a Freudian before Freud.

749-50. Poe says that an undercurrent of mysteriousness and the supernatural ought to stay just that—an undercurrent. The poet shouldn’t militantly promote this kind of undercurrent to the surface of a poem. Mystery feeds on understatement, and the poem’s design and wordcraft should generate the proper psychological effects.

In conclusion, I want to offer a few thoughts on the general question as to why the French take Poe so seriously, whereas we Americans never know quite what to make of him. I think the French admire Poe because they respect his sheer artificiality, his way of crafting his own public image as an artist—he makes no pretensions to romantic originality, social responsibility, or anything of the sort. Baudelaire, after all, praises artifice as an essential element in human nature, and he says that nature “can counsel nothing but crime” because it reduces neatly to base self-interest. Then, too, Poe embraces modern conditions for the production and interpretation of literary texts—he’s a reviewer, a critic, a shameless self-promoter who is perfectly willing to sell his macabre visions to a paying public. There’s quackery in Poe, but it is of an oddly authentic sort. He’s a quack with integrity, perhaps….

Or we might approach the matter in a different way—why should Stéphane Mallarmé the Symbolist poet and critic make so much of Poe? Well, Mallarmé liked to think of language as an entirely autonomous order—something created by human minds that slips the bonds of all things human to become its own sacred realm. Poe seems to be simpatico with that kind of emphasis—he creates another world, a Gothic Death’s Dream Kingdom, that maintains itself independently of everyday life. His “supernaturalism” may be akin to French claims about the Sacred Word. But perhaps this idea needs work and is too general to be satisfying. My sense is that while Poe knows he is manufacturing this eerie realm in a most scandalous way, that mechanical nature of the process seems justified beside the results are so good.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

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